Tom Hall, Senior Rooster Agronomist

Baseball legend Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” That’s good advice for U.S. corn growers because several countries are making strides to challenge the U.S. as the world’s leading corn producer. In fact, exempting the European Union, whose government corn policies control corn production to provide stable pricing, the rest of the world is rapidly expanding acres and adopting technology to shrink the U.S lead.

Looking up at China in total acreage
The number of corn grain acres in the U.S. has been incredibly consistent for almost a century, averaging roughly 80 million acres. China hit the 80-million-acre mark in 2009 and has the ability to flex another 30 million acres (figure 2) in and out of corn production, putting their overall total in the range of 80 to 110 million acres, perhaps more. So, by measure of acres, China is already the world leader in corn production (figure 5); over the last 15 years, corn acreage has grown in China by 41 percent, compared to a 13-percent rise in the U.S. and a 12-percent decline in the European Union (figure 6).

Still the world leader in yield
When you look at bushels per acre, however, the U.S. still maintains a commanding lead over the rest of the world. Much of this is due to the excellent soil and favorable weather found in the Midwest and Southern growing regions. U.S. corn acres average 174 bushels/acre, more than 50 bushels higher than the nearest competitor, the European Union, and more than 70 bushels higher than China (figure 3).

This gap, however, is narrowing. Several countries have made tremendous leaps in yield over the last 15 years compared to the U.S. (figure 4) and continue to cut into this lead. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not the only region blessed with advantageous corn-growing conditions. The Ukraine and Russia have deep prairie soils that are only limited by the length of the growing season.  South America’s temperate climate and rainfall allow double cropping corn and soybeans.  China has both rich farmland and access to the world’s best technology that can allow them to skip ahead on the technology adoption curve.

The Impact of Global Corn Production
Farm advocates are quick to note that by 2050 the world will need to feed an extra 2 billion people. Many U.S. farmers are counting on this population growth to create large new markets and push prices to new levels. Looking at global trends for both acreage and yield, this may not be the challenge that some make it out to be. Consider, for instance, if the rest of the world increased yields by 30 bushels/acre over the next 10 years. This increase would be well within the 20-percent increase over the last decade. It would be the equivalent of adding another U.S.-sized corn producer. And competitors to the U.S. are getting better every year in filling new market demand that will likely keep prices in familiar ranges.

We believe the world has the capacity to expand corn supply to meet population growth. However, we also believe the US will retain its global corn leadership position because of

  1. Unmatched transportation infrastructure to move grain from the farm to ports.
  2. The industry and university research presence that allows US farmers to continue to take advantage of genetic gain and production efficiencies.
  3. The sane US regulatory approach to biotechnology and crop protection.
  4. The higher US cost input price structure incentivizes agribusiness to deliver innovation here first.
  5. Finally, the US farmer’s ability to innovate to increase yields and maximize their labor by pushing planting, application, and harvest speeds to new heights.

NOTE: The figures in this story were taken from farmdoc daily, a University of Illinois web publication (11/118/20). We highly recommend to anyone interested in farm policy, management, and economics.